Below is a guest post by Michelle Velez, LAS ’14, Environmental Science and Spanish Major.
As an Interpreter Intern at the Villanova Law School legal clinic, I have the opportunity to not only translate documents and phone calls in the office, but to gain real world face-to-face translating skills as well. Last week I had the opportunity to translate a client meeting as well as to shadow the Friends of Farmworkers volunteers during their outreach visits to farmworker housing.
Translating for the client meeting was a welcome challenge, but also a saddening reality. The client was a 14 year-old boy who had been caught by ICE when crossing the border. He had fled Guatemala to be reunited with his parents working in PA, but they were undocumented as well. The already sensitive situation was heightened by the fact that the boy did not understand much Spanish and almost no English, but rather spoke a rare indigenous dialect.
I was immediately reminded of the many homestays I had during my time studying abroad in Panama when we walked into that old townhouse. Its mismatched furniture, chipping paint, and unfinished walls gave no illusions to their precarious financial situation, yet the home had a distinctly welcoming atmosphere, marked by an abundance of family photos lining the walls and their hospitality, offering us refreshments when we entered. The father dominated the meeting while the mother sat quietly in the corner, expressing contentment whenever questioned directly. The boy sat on the couch and stared at the ceiling, nervous and confused. It was then that I realized the sheer challenge of working this client’s case: the boy would need to testify himself in court and he parents could not accompany him since that would put them in danger of deportation as well. Yet the boy rarely spoke and may not understand Spanish or English.
The lawyers tried to find an interpreter who speaks his dialect, but the only one they could track down lived in Guatemala. The resulting phone call between the translator in Guatemala and the shy child in PA was a disaster. The connection was poor and the boy spoke a slightly different dialect than the translator. I was shocked that the translator seemed to plow through his assignment of explaining a document to the boy, without pausing for confirmation or letting the lawyers know what was going on. Finally, I began to realize that the boy was asking clarifying questions in Spanish, not the dialect, and I suggested to the lawyers that they stop the call. It turned out that the boy knew more Spanish than he initially let on and was just very shy. I sat down next to him and went through the document slowly, indicating the bold parts and the parts where he needed to sign. The boy finally started talking and responding and even smiled when we asked some more questions about his school and his interests. It was a great feeling to help bridge the gap between a nervous young client and the lawyers. I hope I can continue with this case as I think continuity and familiarity will help this boy find his voice.
The trip to visit farmworker housing with Friends of Farm Workers was an adventure. Many of the farmworker trailers are hidden in the orchards or off winding, dirt roads so it was a challenge just to find them let alone communicate with the workers inside. We went to seven different farms, handing out informational pamphlets explaining workers’ rights at each one. A few places we were invited inside into the trailers but at most we just spoke to one or two people outside, distributed pamphlets, and left.
At one farm, we ran into a group of workers fixing a flat tire and we had the chance to talk with them for a while about all the other places they had worked: California, Georgia, North Carolina. It was incredible how far they had traveled. What struck me was that there were two quiet young children at that farm as well, watching us in the background, one clinging to a stuffed dog and another trying to catch the attention of a stray cat that was roaming the farm. I wondered about how these children would grow up, constantly moving, watching their parents deal with potentially discriminatory bosses, always looking over their shoulders for ICE.
On the drive back I asked the volunteers how many people actually called their hotline for help. They said that there have been a few and that this year they are dealing with a case of harassment in which an orchard owner would call his workers horribly insulting names. Yet the reality is that while Friends of Farmworkers and PLA can offer legal services to workers, they cannot guarantee their job security. If workers start speaking up, then they will most likely be fired and since farmers in small rural communities are often close, that will also prevent them from getting work with anyone else in the area if they are viewed as a potential problem. It was eye-opening to speak with the farmworkers in their element and gave me a glimpse of the reality of their work and their lives. I think it is essential for any lawyer or translator working on immigration or farmworkers’ rights cases to do outreach such as this to put their efforts into perspective.